Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne lend their mega-wattage to Simon Stone’s Medea, now playing a limited engagement at BAM after successful outings in London and Amsterdam. But the show’s real star doesn’t actually step foot onstage.
Her name is Julia Frey, and she deserves above-the-title billing. Without her efforts, there would be no production.
Frey designed the videos that flash in a near-continuous loop across Bob Cousins’ stark-white set. Some of these loops are clearly pre-recorded, while others require the actors onstage to direct their performances toward hidden cameras around the stage, rather than to the audience. The combined effect forces the viewer to choose how they want to receive the play: Is it a live experience or a very expensive movie?
Keeping my eyes focused on the large screen suspended above the Harvey Theater’s proscenium arch offered a fuller picture of the action than the dais below. Byrne, for example, spends at least half the eighty-minute running time standing in profile, her shoulder-length hair obscuring her features, acting for the videographer’s invisible lens. If you want to see her face — and what is the point of acting without expressiveness? — you must turn to the video.
Ultimately, this presentational style backfires in a way I’m not sure Stone (or Frey) anticipated. Byrne, Cannavale and their colleagues — the cast includes stage veteran Dylan Baker and the exciting newcomer Jordan Boatman, who was so memorable in last season’s The Niceties — act in a manner calibrated for the theater. Their oversized facial expressions and declamatory speech patterns suit live performance, but they look ridiculous and overwrought on a jumbotron. Theater is an actor’s medium, after all — here, the camera does the work.
Perhaps Stone wants to call attention to the difference in how actions are processed versus how they actually occur. More likely, he’s leaning into a particular Eurotrash aesthetic that seems sophisticated and can disguise deficits in the writing and direction. It comes as no surprise to learn that this production originates from the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, where Ivo van Hove has turned this style of production into a cottage industry.
Remove the bells and whistles — which also include blandly contemporary costumes (An D’Huys), blindingly bright lighting (Sarah Johnston) and an intrusive soundtrack (Stefan Gregory) — and you’re left with Greek tragedy as soap opera. Medea and Jason, here called Anna and Lucas, are no longer royalty and warrior, but a pair of research scientists in an unnamed American city. A bland cheating scandal brings about their mutual destruction.
In many ways, Stone has done to Euripides what he did to Federico García Lorca’s Yerma, seen two years ago at Park Avenue Armory. For both works, he deleted the cultural context of the source material, retaining only the central theme. Although both plays keep their original title, what ends up onstage is essentially cut from whole cloth.
Both plays are also off-putting in similar ways. By removing the religious context of Yerma, in which childless women were viewed as evil and unholy by a repressive Catholic society, Stone created a story of solipsism and hubris: A wealthy, privileged woman in modern-day London wants a baby as a status symbol and, finding she cannot have one, presides over her own self-destruction.
In this Medea, a woman annihilates herself and her family after being jilted. A subplot that might explain a deeper root to Anna’s meltdown — that she, a superior scientist, had groundbreaking research stolen by her less accomplished husband — emerges almost as an afterthought. It’s not given enough weight to make it plausible. Ultimately, Stone distills the element of tragedy into something trivial, sexist and ultimately repulsive.
The actors commit admirably to Stone’s concept, although it mostly hampers their attempts to give fully realized interpretations. Byrne’s Anna alternates between manic and mannered states. Cannavale projects an aura of drabness that makes you wonder why anyone would kill for him. The usually superb Baker leans too heavily into malevolent stereotypes as Christopher, the story’s Creon figure.
The two best performances come from the youngest members of the cast: Boatman, who generates actual pathos in a dual role that combines Nurse and Messenger; and Madeline Weinstein as Clara, Lucas’s new fiancée, who is utterly clueless to the chaos her romantic entanglement stands to cause. It’s surely no accident that the camera focuses less on these two than on others in the company.
Stone’s Medea may still be termed tragedy, but don’t expect much catharsis. Substance like that would get in the way of style. And as the final moments unspooled on the screen I’d watched all night, I half-expected someone to call “Cut!” before the auditorium lights faded to black.
Medea plays through March 8. For more information, visit BAM’s website.
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